An Unfinished Freeway Revolt: Car-Free Vancouver Day
I’m just back from a fantastic five-day visit to Vancouver to help celebrate and publicly ponder Car-Free Vancouver Day. The event started six years ago along East Vancouver’s Commercial Drive (“the Drive” as it is often called there). It has grown to encompass five separate neighborhood street closures, one being the very wide 4- to 6-lane Main Street where it is closed for about 17 blocks. To San Franciscans the event has a certain familiarity, combining something of our venerable tradition of street fairs with the newer excitement of “Sunday Streets.” But unlike the well-established and highly commercial street fairs, or the city-sponsored Sunday Streets, Car-Free Vancouver Day is a product of grassroots organizing, with hundreds of volunteers working hard for months to produce an exciting day of urban reinhabitation.
The event has its roots in the years-long campaign to stop a $10 billion freeway and port expansion plan that will bulldoze local farms, neighborhoods, and indigenous sites, in addition to wrecking a couple of extant urban wilderness zones at Burns Bog and Surrey Bend. The Gateway Sucks campaign emphasizes that this plan, which is still proceeding, will lock in more urban sprawl and sabotage the local greenhouse gas reduction plan, all to increase trade in raw goods and disposable junk.
The East Vancouver neighborhood was the first to propose a day-long closure of the its main corridor Commercial Drive as a way to demonstrate popular opposition to further freeway building. Urban activists like Matt Hern, who along with his family was my super fantastic host, saw a street closure as a way of animating the community, bringing people face to face in a car-free zone for at least a day, but in so doing, promote a more convivial and integrated neighborhood life year-round. Based on my short visit, I’d have to say that it’s been a smashing success—the provincial British Columbia government has yet to back down on their gargantuan 20th-century development plan, but the rising tide of community activism, urban gardening, bicycle advocacy and much more is palpable in Vancouver.
The recently elected mayor is a source of controversy. On one hand he’s a big bicycle advocate and has pushed through two tangible improvements for cyclists that have generated plenty of heat from merchants and auto-centric citizens. One long-standing demand of local cyclists, an additional southbound lane for bikes on the major arterial Burrard Bridge, has been established.
Another is a two-way bike lane that has replaced one of the westbound lanes on a major boulevard in downtown, Dunsmuir Avenue. Even more dramatic is that Dunsmuir is reached by an old viaduct that was built as part of a freeway plan several decades ago but never completed. Now the onramp has the bike lane on it and a whole lane has been switched over to two-way bike traffic. If Vancouver can do this, why can't San Francisco start planning to narrow the five lanes on the Bay Bridge, reduce the speed limit to 30 or 40 on the west span, and with the eventual completion of the new east span bike lane, we'll be able to cross the bay on bike at long last?
The whole downtown area endured (celebrated?) the Winter Olympics this past February, and the city’s budget is now being slashed. The same pro-bicycling mayor hired a city manager who is gutting the local school budget, park maintenance, libraries, and everything else they can cut to address the massive cost overruns the city incurred to host the Olympics. The False Creek area, once a seedy industrial zone, has been utterly refashioned (not unlike San Francisco’s Mission Bay) with the Olympic village housing area (promises for large amounts of public housing have been reneged on now, not surprisingly) and a refurbished shoreline promenade looking out at a manmade “Habitat Island.”
San Francisco and Vancouver have a lot in common. Big money keeps flowing in, driving real estate prices into the stratosphere, and keeping them there. But an increasingly active citizenry is resisting the untrammeled capitalist growth and development model with an indomitable spirit that makes Vancouver a great place to visit IN SPITE of its much-touted “success.”
I had the pleasure of speaking to four separate gatherings of organizers, presenting some of my “typical” themes. Building on the logic of Nowtopia, I argued that the Car-Free Vancouver Day movement should work to avoid having their festival succumb to the logic of being not much more than an alternative mall. That means utilizing the public space they’ve opened for much more than commerce, in fact finding so many compelling things to do in it that they displace commerce in ways similar to the way that bicycles displace cars during Critical Mass (many of the activists in Vancouver are big Critical Mass participants too). I was happy to see a lot of other activities while I was rolling around between Main Street and Commercial Drive. Here’s some images of music and bikes to wrap up this report: